Part one: five community rules.
These rules are a further iteration of my earlier ‘five community questions’. I hope they will be of interest and use to anyone who does voluntary or community work, or for anyone working for or with organisations that work with people and/or communities at a local level.
How do I make these better?
1. People are better, connected: ask how what you are doing affects their access to social and community support.
2. Vulnerable is a life stage: we all go periods of our lives - being ill, unemployed, old - where we are more vulnerable- how what is being done affect these people?
3. Feeling part of something bigger than you - a community - is better for you
4. Voice and Agency lift you
5. Barriers are bad
- People are better, connected.
Our work to date has highlighted the importance of feeling connected and supported across the board. We surveyed 3000 people in seven areas across England to assess the impact of social and community inclusion on mental wellbeing. We found that people who do not have others they feel close to, tend towards reporting lower feelings of meaningfulness in their lives; those who do not have ready access to practical help, such as help around the house or picking something up from the shops, tend towards reporting lower life satisfaction.
You may not feel this applies to you. However our findings show that on average, being locally supported has a marked effect on doing well. Trusting people locally and feeling like your local community is friendly are well-used markers of social cohesion. Maybe speaking with your neighbours may be more important than you think.
A local pastor in London, highlighted that it was the middle classes who were often at risk of low wellbeing in his parish: many of the problems he comes across involve the ‘incomers’ – middle class, new(ish!) arrivals who buy/rent in the area but have family roots elsewhere and work in central London – when these people lose their jobs or have a personal crisis they don’t have a local support network and become isolated.
- Vulnerability is a life-stage, and it changes depending on where you live.
Wellbeing depends on where you live and what life-stage you are at. People can be vulnerable in ways that are area –specific, and different groups of people are vulnerable at different stages in their lives, such as when being unemployed, having a long-term illness, raising children (especially as a single parent), or after retirement.
These interactions between area and life-stage will not always be obvious to outsiders: contrary to all national trends, in an area of Liverpool with 40% unemployment, we found that those with High School qualifications and above (e.g. university etc…) had lower life satisfaction than those who were less qualified. In other areas found that the unemployed with higher qualifications faired far worse than the unemployed with no qualifications. Whilst single parents in an area of inner-city London tended towards higher than average life satisfaction, we found that in the village of Murton, in the North of England, single parents had far lower life satisfaction and mental wellbeing.
I think that these differences all boil down to what you thought your life would be, and about what you think is ‘normal’. In an area where it is ‘normal’ to be unemployed, being highly qualified may actually lead to lower life satisfaction. You might feel stuck and like you are fighting a losing battle: this was not the local economy that your education had led you to expect.
Similarly, our findings about single parents in the village of Murton came as no surprise to someone who was originally from this village,but now lived in the New Cross area of London: she explained that in the village she was from, being a single parent was hard, and a real source of stigma. In New Cross, being a single parent is relatively ‘normal’ and there is a lot of support out there.
- Feeling part of something bigger than you, is better for you.
Research we carried out in the North of England (in Blackburn) highlighted that those who ‘feel part of something that [they] would call a community’ had higher life satisfaction, mental wellbeing, area and health satisfaction, as well as reporting better levels of social support. This links to work where we found that having aspirations that lined up with and were supported by your local area was fundamental for you wellbeing and life satisfaction.
- Everyone needs a voice and access to their own Agency
As a rule, having access to those in authority or who can get things done locally is very good for you. Being ‘known’ locally tends to be associated with higher wellbeing and life satisfaction scores. However this ‘voice’ needs to be meaningful: it is accepted that feelings of control and ‘efficacy’ are a fundamental component of good mental wellbeing. Consultation without action can damage both the wellbeing and local trust of residents.
Our work highlighted that those who were connected to local power holders without having access to social support actually had lower life satisfaction across the board. It is not enough to know that you could go to your councillor, or to know so-and-so at the police: you need the support system around you to make use of these useful connections.
- Barriers are bad.
One of the most common links between wellbeing and social connections in our research was the link between lower life satisfaction and either feeling that there were things that stopped you feeling part of the local community or identifying places you tried to avoid.
These means that is important to listen to complaints: it does not matter if it is litter, or an annoying neighbour or poor transport links that are blocking you: any blocker is bad and should be taken seriously